We are Asking the Wrong Question in Ferguson

I couldn’t sleep tonight. The ghosts of black men who have been murdered by police (or police-posers) were haunting me. So I took my grievances to twitter



I’ve watched countless hours of footage, read hundreds of social media posts daily and I’ve come to the conclusion that to ask “Who killed Mike Brown?” is the wrong question. The question should be “What killed Mike Brown?” 

Racism is a learned behavior. On the surface, the solution would be education. The problem with that solution is that the learned behavior is institutionalized. Whether we are talking about the disparities in the criminal justice system or the classroom, racism is alive and well in America. My fear about the situation in Ferguson, is that we are getting too wrapped up in the individual case. Of course Mike Brown’s murderer needs to be brought to justice, but IF and WHEN that happens, it is not a cause for celebration because the fight is not over. That is only the beginning! The best way that we can honor the life of Mike Brown is to prevent as many black men (and black women, and Latinos) from suffering the same fate. We need to attack WHAT killed Mike Brown, which was institutional racism. It is the same thing that killed Eric Gardner, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo and Fred Hampton. We cannot be nearsighted in our fight for justice, and we cannot be farsighted when we think of all of those who we’ve lost to this SOCIAL (e.g. FIXABLE) reality. 


Institutional change requires a look at policy (laws), policy makers (the people who create the laws), public institutions (like schools), and protocol (the use of force, the investigation of complaints, etc). Institutional change rarely happens because of one case or event. It examines patterns and trends. It connects the dots. Institutional change would force us to connect Fred Hampton to Trayvon Martin to Renisha McBride to Eric Gardner. Institutional change does not just affect an individual family or community, it SHIFTS an entire state, an entire country, the entire world! Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson from 1896. That institutional change took 58 years and even after the laws were enacted, it took another 3 or so years for institutions to actually obey the law (hence the Little Rock 9). Institutional change takes time and it includes the work of activists, attorneys, educators, journalists, artists – a cross-section of the community working together toward the same goal(s). 


“Don’t shoot” looks really cute on a t-shirt, but we have to DIG in to the United States constitution, we have to be specific and articulate exactly what needs to change and we have to be consistent, persistent and RELENTLESS about changing WHAT killed Mike Brown… “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Who Is Going To Replace You?


Caption: Kelsey, my assistant & our Social Media Manager, also my little sis & mentee!

While at Echoing Green New Fellows Retreat, we learned about the passing of a fellow at-large and groundbreaking Social Entrepreneur Priya Haji (Read more about her here:  http://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2014/07/17/groundbreaking-social-entrepreneur-priya-haji-dies ). Though I did not have the pleasure of meeting Priya Haji, I was incredibly moved by her presence as so many shared the positive impact that she had on their lives and on our world. I was also balancing this notion of “retirement,” considering the fact that Geoffrey Canada recently announced his retirement from the Harlem Children’s Zone, where he became the President in 1990. And then, to think I just left a profession to focus full-time on this work. Transitions happens and whether forced or created, we all have to encounter them and what better way to prepare than “succession planning?” I can’t help but see the word “success” at the beginning of the phrase, which would suggest that this process is essential to planning for success!

Succession planning is not something that most new leaders think of… after all, thinking about “succession” means confronting some deep fears… fear of change… fear of losing control and perhaps even, fear of death. As I consider long-term planning, at the top of my mind and in the center of the conversation will be succession planning. Succession Planning for me means answering the following questions:
(1) Who can I identify now to replace me?
(2) How can I better prepare that (or those) individual(s) to carry on the work (bonus points if we can think of how to better prepare someone we may never have the chance or opportunity to speak to)?
(3) Under what conditions should I change or alter roles (and/or titles) within my organization?
I don’t believe in people dying in leadership positions, particularly when it may be more useful to either “share” or “transfer” power and influence. I don’t believe in only one person who is qualified or prepared to perform a particular task. I’m of the belief that teams work well, and there should always be a person or group of persons “in the pipeline.” There is one person who I am actively grooming to “replace” me, but based on my new insights thanks to my new fellowship, I am planning to bump that number up to three.
When it comes to carrying on the work, that includes not only the technical side of things – raising money, planning and implementing programming, but also values – integrity, creativity, social justice. While I may not be in a position to work with a multitude of individuals to train them on how to become an Executive Director… I’d like my approach to my work and how I perform my work, to be an example to others. At the basic level, when people have an interaction with me, I’d like for them to feel better, even if the interaction is not under ideal circumstances.
In terms of changing or altering roles, I am still very early in my career, but I believe that if I ever get too physically, mentally, or emotionally ill to continue on with this work – I will move to the side. There may come a time when I am called to do something else, either connected to or to evolve the mission of Donda’s House. Right now I am very much emotionally connected (attached by umbilical cord) to this work, but I have seen situations where the cord just had to be cut – for the health of either the mother or the baby. 10 years ago, you couldn’t have told me that one day I would leave teaching in a traditional classroom setting, let alone, start a new business!
So, no matter what you’re doing, I’d ask you to consider the three questions above, and start implementing a plan for someone else to walk in your shoes…

1 Comment

Filed under Inspiration, Work

I Quit My Job…To Change The World…


I started working at the age of 12, and at many points in my life I had two (sometimes three) jobs, including in High School. Every two weeks, since then, I’ve received at least one paycheck. When your checks are regulated, your meals are regulated and your lifestyle is regulated.

Last August, my husband Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Kanye & I launched Donda’s House, Inc., with a simple idea – that kids deserve access to artistic opportunities. Art changes lives. It certainly changed mine, when I was raped by my mother’s boyfriend at the age of 12. I did not go to counseling or therapy at that time, but I did put ink to paper. My notebook, and reading the poetry of Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni carried me through that confusion, shame and anger… It’s hard to believe it, and downright disgusting that somewhere around 75% of black and Latino youth do not have access to arts instruction. Unfortunately, art is usually the first thing to go when schools face budget crises. Creativity has been relegated to the crevices of public education and when we look at the poor reading and math skills, the violence and the overall funk that low-income communities seem steeped in, there has to be correlation.

After we launched Donda’s House, I quickly realized that not only did I love it more than teaching, but that it was what I was sent to this planet to do. In the same way that plants provide oxygen to humans, I am supposed to advocate for access, build bridges over troubled water and steer this large vessel that we call Donda’s House in the right direction. This is the first job that I’ve had, that is always on my mind, and this is the first job that I’ve had that doesn’t feel like work. I live for the moment that our artists believe that they are talented, for the moments of discomfort where we ask them to do something creatively they’ve never done before, for the final mixed version of the songs that they work all semester for. Besides my family, I live for Donda’s House…

When I submitted my Echoing Green Application in December of 2013, my prayer was if it be God’s will, to make a way to allow me to do Donda’s House full time. The deal that I made with myself was that I could only leave teaching if at least replaced my teaching salary. The day that I received the news was a particularly tough day, and I cried like a baby, because on top of the realization that I was in fact being provided with the opportunity to focus exclusively on Donda’s House, it was confirmation for me, that I have in fact discovered my life’s purpose. Not only does Echoing Green provide seed funding, but I am a part of a 55 member cohort of organizational leaders from all over the world in multiple industries, looking to change the world with a big, bold idea. Read more about all of the fellows here: http://www.echoinggreen.org/blog/whos-next-meet-2014-fellows. One of the first things that I learned is that this work cannot be done alone and a strong tribe (network) is vital to success! Additionally, the support and training that I will receive as a fellow will really help to accelerate my growth as a leader, and our impact as an organization. Also, the fellowship will take me to Mumbai, India later this year!!!

At this moment I am feeling incredibly blessed… a little scared (like going up the hill on a roller coaster scared). My husband joked that I’ve pretty much accomplished everything on my list of 10 year goals (that were set 10 years ago, one of which included to start an organization of my own). He’s challenged me to recreate a list for the next 10 years.

I’m planning to make more time to write, and I’d like to thank you for sharing in my journey! The truth is, I quit my job and I’m changing not only my world, but the world that I live in.  I hope that when I’m no longer here, it can be said that I made the world a better place because there were so many that came before me, who did just that for me. If you haven’t already, please check out Donda’s House: http://dondashouseinc.org/ and join our mailing list: http://dondashouse.us3.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=3e2f2bf4af854cabb9f6e542c&id=8382974aca.





Filed under Inspiration, Work

The Truth About Dream Chasing…

ImagePhoto Caption: On a #dreamchasing Mission in New York, pictured here at the Roc Nation Offices for a meeting!

Had a great conversation with one of my coworkers today about dream chasing. 

My coworker has essentially made the decision to pursue a life-long dream, and this coworker knows about my dream & goal of continuing to build and grow Donda’s House to a point where we exist in every major city and youth around the world can have access to our arts programming FOR FREE! 

The thing about dream chasing is that: 

- It requires more faith than fear… Faith that everything is going to work out. Faith that you aren’t making the biggest mistake in your life. Faith that your needs will be provided for, and that net will catch you before you fall head & face first onto the concrete… 

- It is super delicate… you have to be careful who you share your dream with because some people are dream killers… You’ll find yourself trying to convince and justify your dream so much that you will no longer have the energy to pursue your dream. Be sure that you surround yourself with dream feeders! People that will give you the knowledge, support and resources to make your dream a reality. 

- It requires action… “A goal without a deadline is just a dream…” it will only exist in your heart and in your mind unless you take specific actions on a consistent basis to make the dream real. Don’t focus on the end result… That can be discouraging, instead focus on the baby steps, the small actions that you can take, daily, weekly or  monthly to reach the GOAL. 

Dream chasing is not easy… It takes a lot of energy… can be both emotionally rewarding and emotionally draining, but in the end, you’ll be happy because you are living your life on purpose! 

From one dream chaser to another, I salute you! 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Usher In The Future That We Imagine Tomorrow…



I had the honor and the privilege to attend a lecture by Sister (Dr.) Angela Davis earlier tonight with my husband and several of our Donda’s House, Inc. students. I want to share some of the thoughts that resonated with me:

- There is a difference between addressing individuals who commit racist acts vs. addressing structural racism. Emotionalism often causes us to attack the individuals and as Dr. Davis said, it easily reproduces itself…

- We would not have free public education, if it weren’t for slaves…

- Harriet Tubman is a great example of a selfless individual who “ushered in the future that we inhabit today.” Dr. Davis wants us to imagine a world without any guns and without any racism…  Harriet Tubman was referenced as an example of someone who put the needs of the community above her own needs. “We have a hard time imagining anything outside ourselves.

- Mass Incarceration is fueled by racism and the globalization of capital which is fueled by profit and not people’s needs.

- We can’t just address one part of violence or racism and expect it all to go away.

- “Unity + struggle + organization = victory”

My three she roes: Harriet Tubman


Mrs. Marian Wright Edelman:


Ella Baker:




Leave a comment

Filed under Inspiration, Uncategorized

You’re Unhappy? Now what?


I will always credit my husband Che, with both saving and changing my life at the same time. When I first met Che, I was deep in an emotionally abusive relationship. For whatever reason in my mind I had normalized the trauma. Even convinced myself that I deserved the ill treatment. One day, I was going to confide in my new friend Che about yet another argument… I was going to complain about how hopeless I felt… about how I had recommending counseling and therapy… about how marriage is so hard, and he interrupted me mid complaint and said:

“Honestly, if you’re not going to do anything about your situation, I don’t really want to hear about that aspect of your life…”

At first I felt angry and defensive. How dare he? But then he kept going, “I’ve come across so many people who have so many issues  whether its family relationships, friendships, their body, and frankly, I just don’t want to hear about it unless you decide to do something about it.” Little did I know then, that he would eventually become my husband! We’ve always had this amazing ability to not only be supportive but to say what needs to be said, and to give each other a (figurative) kick in the pants. We make each other better and it has always been that way from the very beginning.  Not only did I decide to leave that abusive relationship… I also decided to do more acting than complaining:

- We were unhappy about the way our community was being ran, so we decided to run for City Council.

- I felt like there wasn’t enough information out there for women of color dealing with fertility issues, so I decided to pitch a column to Black & Married With Kids dealing with just that subject.

- We were tired of our cramped condo and not too stellar neighborhood, so we decided to move into a house.

- We came up with this great idea during the campaign about using the arts to connect to Chicago youth and help them overcome their obstacles and achieve their goals… we lost the campaign (by a mere 200 votes) but decided to implement the idea… today we call it Donda’s House.

- There was a person who was very close to me who kept being super negative and caused a ton of (unnecessary) drama… I decided to stop answering the phone calls and the texts and deal with that person from a distance.

I could go on and on. That moment in January of 2009, when Che told me those things, I knew that it was truth because after I got over my initial emotional reaction, I realized that he was telling the truth. So today… I ask you… what are those things you keep complaining about? Either think about them or make a list of them… Give yourself 15 – 20 minutes to just rant and rave and then… even if it is just one small little action… write down what you are going to do to change that thing you’re complaining about.

Feel free to share in the comments section, what you’ve been complaining about and what you’re planning to do to try to overcome it! The change may not happen over night, but if you take small steps you will see the change eventually!

1 Comment

Filed under Inspiration

Which Tribe(s) Do You Belong To?


I had the pleasure of attending Happy Black Woman’s Launch Yourself Tour last night here in Chicago and as always it was exactly where I needed to be. Over the years, Rosetta Thurman, the genius & gorgeous spirit behind http://happyblackwoman.com/ has inspired me so much because she’s so transparent, actually practices what she preaches, and she’s literally created the life she envisioned, she is driven by her mission and she gives you the love tough… her love & her passion for empowering women just oozes from her…

There were so many take-aways from last night’s session, but the thing that is sticking with me the most is the importance of taking small, consistent steps toward a goal. I’m a dreamer… my head is always in the clouds… but sometimes, its  important to not think about the finish line but to just concentrate on the next step, and then the next and eventually you hit your stride. There are so many things that are out of our control – the weather and other people, but there are so many things that are in our control – how much TV we watch and social networks we stalk watch. Time is not something that happens to us, it is something that we dictate.

The other thought, as I looked around the room filled with beautiful black woman in various industries, of various income levels and of differing ages – was the importance of being surrounded by people of the same gender that not only cheer you on, but challenge you with the hard questions and remind you of the promises you made. Rosetta described the room as a “tribe.” As I prepare for a summer of amazing opportunities and unforeseen challenges, I am thinking about ways that I can build, interact with and support my fellow warriors and dream chasers.


Leave a comment

Filed under Inspiration, Work